At this year’s Workday Rising customer conference in Chicago, one of the most thought-provoking sessions featured Dr. Josh Davis, who specializes in helping businesses harness neuroscience research in his role as research director and lead professor at the Neuroleadership Institute. We sat down with Davis to discuss the business value of a diverse workforce, the impact of unconscious biases on our decisions, and what organizations and individuals can do to improve decision-making.
Can you recap why businesses should care about fostering workforce diversity and inclusion?
There’s pretty consistent evidence from industry, as well as from psychological and neuroscience research, that diversity tends to make companies more profitable. Diverse teams are more creative, accurate, and intelligent. So the simple business reason is that diverse teams drive better outcomes.
What is it about diverse teams that helps them perform better?
The effort of being in a diverse team makes us concentrate and think differently. The discomfort we feel when we’re interacting with someone who has different beliefs or a different background is really useful—it helps us dig deeper and gather more information, which in turn leads to better decisions. These benefits come from team members having different perspectives, which is not the same as simply being on opposite sides of an issue.
What’s really interesting is that in many ways this is counterintuitive. That discomfort people experience leads them to think that the work done by diverse teams is less accurate. Research shows that compared to diverse teams, homogenous teams think they’re more effective and more accurate, and they have greater confidence in their decisions. But the opposite is true.
At the Neuroleadership Institute, you speak about different kinds of bias and the brain science behind those biases. Can you briefly explain what exactly bias is?
The word bias has a bit of a bad rap. Bias doesn’t mean prejudice—prejudice is a conscious, deliberate decision to believe something. Bias can be thought of as leaning one way or another, based on our experience or something deeper. Biases help us get through our day without having to gather every bit of information for every decision we have to make. In fact, the more expert we are at something, the more we can rely on our biases.
The biases that we need to be concerned with are unconscious biases. From a neuroscience point of view, our brains have stronger associations towards certain things than others. For example, similarity bias makes us think that “people like me are better than others,” and distance bias has people believing that “closer things are better than ones that are distant.” Scientists have identified over 150 different types of biases. These unconscious or cognitive biases come into play in certain kinds of decisions and lead to outcomes that we aren’t happy with.